The City That Was Born From Its Ashes Through Art: Bilbao

The City That Was Born From Its Ashes Through Art: Bilbao

Identifying and commemorating a city with a single landmark may serve unjust to the city, but it would be useful to place the monument of art and architecture that gave Bilbao a unique driving force to be reborn from its ashes on a pedestal.

The Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, proves that it has the power to radically change the fate of the city, and this work has allowed Bilbao to become a prestigious place in Europe, both in terms of art and culture.

Gray face of the city

In the northeast of Spain, Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque region, dating back to the 1300s, evolved into an industrial center in the mid-19th century due to the abundance of minerals in the surrounding hills. Although it was developed in the early 20th century thanks to steel making and shipbuilding, it became one of the richest cities in the country, it could not go beyond being a commercial city with these characteristics. The golden age did not last long, and with industrialization, it fell from favor in the 1970s, with its gray face, run-down docks on the banks of the river, buildings with no appeal and industrial scent. Bilbao has become a settlement where one does not want to stop by again and it was forgotten.

Industry out, art in

The sun rises every day… This was also the case for the autonomous community. Following the urban transformation, the city’s gray industry was replaced by the sparkle of art. The Guggenheim Museum was built on the banks of the Nervion River, just like the magic wand of the architecture that touched the city. Opened in 1997, this magnificent titanium-covered structure meant that the city was reborn from its ashes. Since then, Bilbao has been commemorated with this contemporary art center. This museum also meant that the city was shaken out of the industrial crisis. Although the city does not stop at that today; with its gourmet cuisine, designs and dynamic streets, it has stepped forward to become one of the most remarkable cities in Europe since the day it eluded the industry.

Cultural revolution

Guggenheim has the power to support Bilbao. It is an ideal destination, especially for a weekend. However, this city does not only consist of a magnificent museum; it also has great wealth from a cultural and gastronomic perspective. According to the season, the city offers different pleasures; museums, art galleries, street art, walking along the river, special routes for cyclists, Michelin-starred Basque cuisine are among those… But even a short tour of Bilbao is enough to show that this is a genuine city of design. It is not difficult to be convinced, take a look at the elegant subway system designed by British architect Norman Foster. Fosterios metro stops, the cultural center Azkuna Zentroa (Alhóndiga) transformed by Philippe Starck from a wine store, the Campo Volantin Bridge (Zubizuri), which stretches from the river mouth into the city designed by the world-famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, Bilbao Airport, César Pelli Abandoibarra Park and the trade complex next to the Guggenheim, all contributed to a cultural revolution that was unlikely to once be found in the industrial capital of the Basque Country.

A journey from past to future

Take a walk along the rusty Nervion River from Abandoibarra Park to the Zubizuri Bridge to take a journey from “Before Guggenheim” to “After Guggenheim.” In this journey of contrasts, modern buildings and traces of the industrial period remind us of the past. The importance given to gardens and green areas is immediately noticeable. Citizens walk or cycle on the Campo Volantin Bridge. The boats float over the water. Bilbao’s new attractions may be popular, but the city’s old treasures lie quietly on the banks of the river. On the right bank of the river, near the Puente del Arenal Bridge, this cozy area, also known as Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) or Siete Calles (Seven Street), is extremely entertaining with its shops, bars, and restaurants. After the severe floods in 1983, this worn-out part of the city was carefully restored. Casco Viejo features ancient mansions, decorated with family coat of arms, attracting attention with its wooden doors and wrought-iron balconies. The most striking square is the Plaza Nueva with 64 arches, which is worth a visit, where a market is established every Sunday morning.

The world of museums

One of the best museums in Spain dedicated to Basque culture, the Euskal Museum takes visitors on a journey from the Paleolithic days to the 21st century. It offers an impressive summary of the life of boat builders, sailors, shepherds and artists who have left their mark on the modern Basque identity. The Museo de Bellas Artes is another world; it has a remarkable collection of Gothic sculptures and 20th century pop art; the works of Murillo, Zurbarán, El Greco, Goya and van Dyck, as well as the works of major sculptors such as Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida are on display. Although these structures that protect the art are marvelous, the Guggenheim Museum has been shining like a star since its first day of opening.

Milestone of a city

One of the most iconic buildings of modern architecture, the Guggenheim Museum of contemporary art, has emerged from the post-industrial crisis and became Bilbao’s greatest support for keeping up with the 21st century. Moreover, it was not such a dimly lit breakthrough, it was extremely magnificent. While inspiring the city to rise from its ashes, it also encouraged further development and placed Bilbao at the top of the world’s list of international art and tourism. If there is an unbelievable fact, it is mostly the talk and interest in the architecture of the structure which is more than the works exhibited. Canadian architect Frank Gehry created this dazzling architecture, inspired by the curves of nature and the sea, and captured a beautiful look. The outer surface, coated with titanium plates, is highly dynamic; liquid-like domes, dunes, hills extending to the sea, cliffs, ship shapes, towers, and flying fins. In fact, the area where the museum was built was an industrial estate on the banks of the Nervion River, with abandoned, run-down warehouses. The shipbuilding and fishery industry of the city also reflected the architect’s interest. In his previous works, he showed his affinity for industrial materials. The majority of the building is dominated by the titanium coatings resembling the scales of a giant herring, the impression that the architect was inspired by his fascination with the fish in his childhood. Other artists have their touch in this architecture. Among these, the most interesting and the inevitable “selfie” stops are Jeff Koons’ colorful, 12-meter puppy installation, which consists of thousands of begonias, and Louise Bourgeois’ dome-style welcome on the riverside, bronze spider skeleton “Maman”. The interior of the museum is like a cathedral. After such glorious and monumental detail, it is impossible to deny those who think of rewriting the history and destiny of Bilbao as “Before Guggenheim” and “After Guggenheim”.


In a modest neighborhood by the river, Mina Restaurante, which offers a different menu with unexpectedly sophisticated flavors such as shrimp with eggplant and creme brulee with saffron, is considered the best of Bilbao by gourmets.